Working Class life in the 1940s and 1950s Britain ~ Train Travel
Two weeks holidays at the seaside
I grew up in the late forties early fifties and one of the things that stands out in my memory is the old steam trains. Of course they weren’t the old steam trains back then they were just trains.
Like most working class people back then we didn’t own a car. The only means of transport my father ever owned was his bicycle, which he used to cycle to work. Neither of my parents ever learned to drive, and my mum couldn’t even ride a bicycle.
Back in the late forties early fifties if we went anywhere local we either walked there or caught a bus.
Most working class people did not usually venture far from home. It was not unusual for many generations of the same family to live on the same street or in the same neighbourhood.
Some children had never been out of the city they were born in until after they left school and some not even then.
It seems strange looking back now at how excited we got at the thought of going sixty or seventy miles to the coast. Going away on holiday was a big deal.
The physical distance seemed so big and the journey so long. The scenery we saw through the train windows was so different from where we lived.
Instead of the grimey inner city streets and rows of terraced houses we saw the countryside. The countryside we travelled through and the seaside resorts were like another world.
Gone were the grimy streets of back to back terraced housing of the city. In the city everything seemed so hemmed in.
Instead was much wider less densely populated streets of the smaller coastal towns.
Everywhere looked so much cleaner, so much fresher than where we had come from. There were hardly any industrial buildings in the small seaside resorts. So there was also none of the noise and pollution that goes with them.
Back in those days Britain still had a thriving fishing industry. Many of the coastal resorts still had fully functional ports and fishing fleets. The fishing industry provided a livelihood for many of the seaside town's inhabitants.
It was a proud boast of my mums that we always had a two-week summer holiday away at the seaside.
Mum planned our holiday and we looked forward to it all year round. My mum often worked two jobs to save up enough money to pay for the holiday.
Back then many working class families did not go away on a summer holiday because of the cost involved.
It wasn’t until many years later when I had children of my own that I began to appreciate what our holiday cost my mum.
I had no idea of the personal sacrifices my mum made just to give us our two week annual seaside holiday.
The Victoria and The Midland
When we went on our summer holidays to the coast, the train was always the preferred way of travel. Nottingham back then had two big railway stations, The Victoria Station and The Midland Station.
The huge building to the right of Victoria Station was the very grand looking Victoria Station Hotel. As far as I know this hotel is still standing but it is no longer owned by British Rail.
The Victoria and the Midland
Carriages with a Corridor
As we stood on the platform waiting for the train to arrive we always hoped for a corridor train.
We wanted a corridor train because then we could wander up and down the length of the train. Being able to wander the length of the train always seemed to make the journey go much faster.
The train journey was part of our holiday fun. Especially if the train had a corridor because then the the train also became our playground.
But, we had to make sure that we didn’t make a nuisance of ourselves. If we made too much noise the Ticket Inspector or the guard would quickly march us back to our parents.
The inspector would then tell our parents in no uncertain terms to keep us under control.
The other big advantage of having a corridor train is that each carriage had a toilet.
If the train did not have a corridor you were stuck in the compartment until you arrived at your destination.
Mum always made sure we went to the toilet before the train arrived just in case the train did not have a corridor.
No one wants to arrive at the seaside with urine soaked children, it is not fun.
Carriage with a corridor
Carriages with out a corridor
Back in those days there were two kinds of carriages one with a corridor and one without.
If the train you caught had a corridor that corridor connected the carriages to one another. With a corridor train you could walk the length of the train via this corridor.
Each carriage on a corridor train had a toilet. If you were lucky there would be a refreshment carriage as well.
In the refreshment carriages you could buy drinks and snacks. Having a hot cup of tea on a train somehow seemed very special. Especially so if the cup of tea came with a fruit scone or a sticky bun of some sort.
If the train did not have a corridor then each compartment had its own door. Once on-board the train you were stuck in that compartment of the carriage. Once in that compartment you were there until your journey’s end.
So it was important to go to the toilet before you boarded the train.
Each compartment had two doors one each side of the compartment. This was so that you could get in the compartment from either side.
This was important because which platform the train was on dictated the side we got on the train.
Carriage without a corridor
Keeping Us Occupied
My mum would always make sandwiches and a flask of tea to take with us on the train.
Mum would make the sandwiches at home because it was much cheaper than buying those things on the train.
Back then every penny counted, and the less you have to pay out the more you had to spend.
If we got too much of a pain with our endless questions, such as "How much further is it?" or "Are we nearly there yet?" mum would feed us.
The sandwiches would either be ham or egg. Mum wrapped them in the waxy paper that the sliced bread came wrapped in. These sandwiches always tasted deliciously different to the ones back home.
At least while we had food in our mouths the questions would stop and our parents had a bit of peace.
When Skegness , or Skeggy as it was fondly known, was our destination my dad had a way of occupying my brother and I.
Dad would offer 6d to the first one to see Boson Stump. Boston Stump is a famous Boston landmark. It is the tall tower part of St Botolph's Church in Boston.
Because Lincolnshire is so flat, you can see the Stump from miles away. My Brother and I would sit at the train window eyes peeled looking out for the Stump.
It was always exciting when the Stump came into view. We knew when we could see the Stump we were not far from the seaside.
Plus one of us would be getting the 6d reward for spotting the Stump first.
Art on the railways
If you had a corridor train you could look into the other compartments as you walked down the corridor.
On the British railways of that time there were three classes of carriage. There was first class, second class and third class.
The difference between the classes is reflected in the price paid for a first class ticket. The price for first class is much higher than the other two classes. But by paying the higher price you got a much better compartment.
The standard of the furnishing in the first class carriage much higher. The upholstery was much plusher and it always looked cleaner and fresher.
It was also usual for most carriages to have some form of art print in a frame. The pictures were just above head height of the sitting passengers. Each picture was secured by a screw at each corner so that it could not be easily removed.
The trains we travelled on were often Summer excursions. The Railway laid these trains on to take the working class to their holiday destinations.
So all the carriages on the excursion trains were just one class, there were no first class carriages.
There were also smoking and no smoking compartments. Both my parents were smokers at that time so we always went in a smoking compartment.
I have never travelled first class on a British train.
Most working class people did not own cars
At holiday times the Railways put on special trains each Saturday. The carriages of these trains would always be full to bursting.
Most working class people at that time did not own a means of transport.
Owning a car in the UK back then was still more of a middle and upper-class sort of thing.
There were exceptions of course. My friend’s dad who lived on our street had a car. At that time his car was the only one on our street.
My friend's father drove for a living he was a lorry driver for Fyffe Bananas.
The streets that we lived and played on rarely had any cars parked on them. Often the streets were our playgrounds and it was rarely that a car interrupted our play.
The choice train or coach
Back then it was not unusual for a firm to close down for its annual holidays. This obviously meant that all the workers took their holiday at the same time.
If you wanted to go on holiday the journey for most working class people would be either by train or coach.
The nearest seaside towns to the Midlands were Skegness, Chapel St Leonards and Mablethorpe.
So many of the working class people of chose these seaside resorts for their holidays.
I did not like travelling long distances in buses as a child. Apart from the boredom of having to sit still in a seat I would sometimes suffer from travel sickness.
Back then the coaches did not have air-conditioning or toilets on board.
People were also allowed to smoke on buses. This was not too bad if it was a double decker bus as smokers had to go upstairs. This left the downstairs deck smoke free.
But the coaches that took us on holiday were single decker buses. Often you could only smoke at the back of the bus on a single decker but the fume tended to travel foreward.
Travelling in the heat of summer on a coach where I had to sit still was not my idea of fun. For me the train was always my favourite way to go.
Huntington Street Coach and Bus Station
Waiting for the train
I remember the excitement my brother and I felt as we arrived at the railway station.
After getting our tickets checked, my brother and I would run ahead of our parents. We would rush down the steps to the platform.
There we would find lots of other holiday makers who were waiting for the same train as us to arrive at the platform.
Many would be sitting on their suitcases as they waited. Mum would make sure that we always arrived at the station early. Trains didn’t wait for you if you weren’t there when it was ready to go then it would go without you.
Dad would settle us down somewhere on the platform and we would sit on our suitcases. Then off he would go and get a cup of tea for him and my mum.
It was like bedlam on the station platforms at holiday time. The kids would be running about squealing and laughing. Mums and dads would become frazzeled from trying to keep an eye on the kids and the baggage. While also watching for the train at the same time.
The sounds and smells
The smell and the noise when at last the steam train pulled into the station was quite unique to the steam era.
It is so different to sights and sounds associated with the trains of today.
The sounds of the couplings clinking and the engine hissing. The air was full of steam and smoke that seemed to linger even after the trains had gone.
All these steam associated smells and sounds have now pretty much disappeared.
When everyone was on board the train would build up steam. The train driver would blow the train's whistle and off we would go.
The train would start slowly making a huge chuffing sound. Each chuff the engine made would get a little close to the sound of the next chuff.
This went on until the train reached full speed and the individual chuffs were no longer heard.
Soon we were speeding along through the countryside at last on our way.
Within minutes of leaving the station we would be asking the inevitable questions. "Dad are we nearly there yet? and "Dad how much longer is it to Boston?"
We knew that as soon as Boston Stump came into sight then we were not far from the seaside. My brother and I would always compete with each other, to see who could spot the Stump first.
On the train there were smoking and none smoking carriages. This ruling was strictly enforced by the guard or Inspector.
Back then most people seemed to smoke so there was always a heavy demand for seats in the smoking carriages.
We always travelled in the smoking carriages as when my brother and I were young both mum and dad smoked. The thought of going without a cigarette for two or three hours was not something that either of them wanted to do.
Back then the films and advertising portrayed cigarettes as beneficial to your health. Smoking was seen as the cool thing to do. Even film stars that didn’t smoke in real life would take a puff in their films to look sophisticated and cool.
My dad use to smoke Woodbines the Youtube video is a Woodbine advertisement from the 1950´s
A Woodbine Cigarette Advert
This next video shows very much what my generation was exposed to by way of pro smoking propaganda.
The song that accompanies this footage is ‘You are so beautiful’ which matches perfectly the image that was being portrayed.
There was something magical about steam trains
I digress lets get back to trains. Of course you could tell immediately when you had entered a smoking carriage. The smell of stale cigarette smoke permeated the carriage.
Even when there was nobody in the compartment that stale smoke smell was still strong.
The upholstery that had soaked up the smell like a sponge now exuded it back into the air.
I doubt if I could not stand to sit in such a carriage with that stale cigarette smell. But growing up in a smoking household it is surprising how little I noticed this smell.
There was something magical about steam trains. Even though in reality they were often smelly and dirty. The smell and the dirt caused mostly by the smoke.
When the train went through long tunnels we had to make sure that the carriage windows were closed.
If the windows were left open, the compartment would soon fill with smoke from the engine.
Even with the windows closed some of the smoke still managed to seep into the carriage.
Though I didn’t mind the smoke smell to much. I suppose mainly because I always associated this smoky smell with going somewhere nice.
As the train sped along the rails there was a clickerty clack sort of rhythm. The carriage seemed to sway gently from side to side as it sped along.
The poem really captures the feel and rhythm of the steam train as it puffs out its smoke and steam as it thunders along.
Sparky and the talking train
This clickerty clack rhythm reminds me of a set of Sparky records I had as a child. I think there were four or six 78rpm records in the set and one of the stories was Sparky and the talking train.
I would play these records on an old wind up gramophone. The wind up gramophone gave a surprisingly good rendition of the record.
That is, as long as you wound it up well before you started. Later I would play it on our new radiogram under supervision.
I would play the Sparky records over and over again. I never got tired of hearing these stories. In the set I think we also had Sparky and the Echo and Sparky and the magic piano. But, the talking train was always my favourite story.
When I listened to them on the radiogram I would sit on the floor with my head resting on the speakers. The speakers were in the front of the radiogram. I would listen with my eyes closed tight.
I would listen to radio programs in the same way. It may seem strange to young people today, but in some ways stories told like this were better than TV.
When I closed closed my eyes and listened to the story my imagination brought it to life.
If you want a blast from my past this two part story of Sparky and the talking train has been posted on Youtube.
I have put both parts below for you to listen to. I always thought as a child that I was special because I could hear the train talking too.
Now, even after more than fifty years of not hearing this story, I can still hear that train talking to Sparky. The train keeps saying over and over "right front wheel, right front wheel."
The voice of the train speaks in a clickerty clack rhythm of a steam train speeding along its tracks.
Sparky and the talking train part one
Sparky and the talking train part two
The Barrow boys and girls
When we finally got to our holiday destination, barrow boys and girls were waiting at the station. The barrow boys and girls made good money from carrying your luggage.
They met us at the station and transport our cases to our holiday accommodation.
there were barrow boys and girls to meet both the trains and coaches.
Their mode of transportation for your luggage was usually a home made conveyance. Usually the barrows were made out of old pram wheels and bits of wood.
No two barrows looked alike. Some looked and worked better than others and some were easier to control.
Most of the time the barrow boys and girls would not give you a fixed price. Instead they would say "I’ll leave it up to you, give me what you think it is worth".
Barrow Boys and Girls
This might sound a risky thing to do. But in the main,it worked out in their favour. Especially at the beginning of the holiday when people had a bit of money in their pockets.
At the beginning of the holiday most holidaymakers were generous. Most gave the barrow boys and girls more than they would have charged. There were of course those that were the exceptions.
But generally everyone involved was happy with this way of doing things.
Those were happy days. Just writing this hub has brought back many happy memories and for that alone it was well worth writing.
I hope you have enjoyed this small peek into the bygone age of steam trains.
Other Similar Hubs
I hope enjoyed this hub there are other hubs that are about working class life.
The Hubs have the common theme of coming from a Working Class perspective. This working class perspective is different from that of the middle and upper class.
It differs quite a lot from that of the Middle Class. But has virtually nothing in common with the Upper Class's perspective.